Southeast: Alabama rolls to fifth title of spring
ATHENS, Ga. – A breakdown of the third and final round of the NCAA Southeast Regional:
Team winner: Alabama, 24-under 828
Individual winner: Justin Thomas, 9-under 204
Also moving on: 2. East Carolina (853), 3. North Florida (858), 4. Georgia (864), 5. Iowa (866)
Individual: Philip Chian, Long Beach State (3-under 210)
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ROLL TIDE: As expected, Alabama rolled through the Southeast Regional to win its fifth title of the season -- all of which have come in the spring.
The 25-stroke win was the Crimson Tide’s largest margin of victory this season, and it seems to bode well heading into the NCAA Championship, which begins May 29. The Tide finished 1-2-3 individually in Athens, with Bobby Wyatt (205) and Cory Whitsett (208) also playing well.
“That’s about all you can ask for,” ’Bama coach Jay Seawell said of his team’s performance. At 24-under 828, Alabama was the only team to finish under par.
Justin Thomas, who already has become the first freshman to win the SEC’s Player of the Year award, may have added “Player of the Year” to his growing list of accolades. His 9-under 204 total at the University of Georgia Golf Course was his fourth victory of the season, more than any other player in Division I. (He also won the Jones Cup, a prestigious amateur event, in February.)
East Carolina earned its first-ever trip to nationals by finishing second in the team race. Ranked 38th in the country, the Pirates were led by Ryan Eibner, who tied for fourth individually, and Conference USA Player of the Year Harold Varner, who shared 12th.
“That’s four years of hard work paying off,” Varner said. “We felt like we were capable of this. It’s cool to celebrate now, but we need to keep our head down and keep it going.”
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CLOSE CALLS: Georgia was trying to stay alive on its home course. Iowa was trying to erase a final-round deficit. Augusta State was trying to give itself a chance for the three-peat. New Mexico was trying to justify a high seed.
The Race to Riviera certainly was a tense pursuit Saturday, with four teams vying for the final two spots. In the end, Georgia clinched the fourth spot by shooting 12-over 864, while Iowa shot the second-best round of the day, a 1-over 866, to jump from 11th to fifth. The Hawkeyes edged New Mexico by a shot.
“We knew that if we shot a decent number, nothing spectacular, we’d have a good chance of moving on,” said Iowa’s Ian Vandersee, who paced the Hawkeyes with a 5-under 66 Saturday. “Hopefully we have a little momentum moving on to nationals now.”
North Florida certainly made things interesting in the final round, too. Beginning the day in third place, 13 shots clear of fifth, the Ospreys shot 12-over 296 Saturday and needed to play steady down the stretch just to clinch their spot. Nonetheless, North Florida, ranked 12th in the country, has established itself as one of the sleeper teams that could make a run at Riviera.
“When we’ve played well, we’ve competed with the best of them,” North Florida junior Kevin Phelan said. “A smaller school is almost always under the radar, but we’re not trying to surprise anyone. If we play well, we know we can compete.”
Augusta State, the two-time defending NCAA champions, finished seventh, four shots behind Iowa. That was a respectable performance for a team that returned not a single starter from last year’s squad.
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SHORT SHOTS: Long Beach State’s Philip Chian shot 3-under 210 to tie for fourth individually and earn a spot to nationals. He had the best finish of a player on a non-qualifying team. ... New Mexico, which finished one shot out of fifth place, didn’t count a score better than 73 Saturday. ... Even though Iowa jumped from 11th to fifth in the final standings, its comeback wasn’t extraordinary. The Hawkeyes began the final round only six shots out of the all-important fifth spot. ... How dominant has Alabama been this spring? Four of its victories have been by at least 14 strokes.